Empire records

One can only imagine the frenzy that would have occurred in the late 1950s had one of the leading opera composers of the day (Britten? Poulenc? Menotti?) written an opera for Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi—with Franco Corelli as their leading man. That’s what it must have been like in 1726 London when Handel composed Alessandro for perhaps the three most famous (and expensive) singers of the day. Despite its initial runaway success, today it remains one of Handel’s least performed works; however, that may be changing with the release of not one, but two new recordings.

Established by a collective of the British aristocracy to assure a steady stream of Italian opera in London, the Royal Academy of Music opened in 1720 with Giovanni Porta’s Numitore quickly followed by Radamisto by Handel. His trio of masterpieces (written in less than year)–Giulio Cesare, Tamerlano, and Rodelinda— premiered there, their casts headed by the great castrato Senesino and reigning soprano Francesca Cuzzoni.

Ever a pragmatic businessman, Handel soon realized he needed a new sensation to keep interest in the Academy high, so he invited Faustina Bordoni to join his ensemble. That both Cuzzoni and Faustina (as they were popularly known) would regularly be sharing the stage with Senesino created the necessary resurgence of public interest. The two sopranos soon became known as The Rival Queens, a pithy encomium probably derived from their first London appearances together in Alessandro and from Nathaniel Lee’s 1677 verse drama The Rival Queens, or the Death of Alexander the Great.

The excitement created by Faustina’s debut soon led to two ferocious cliques, each fiercely committed to its diva. In a letter at the time, Lord Harvey observed that “in short, the whole world is gone mad upon this dispute. No Cuzzonist will go to a tavern with a Faustinian; and the ladies of one party have scratched those of the other out of their list of visits.” The conflict boiled over at the 6 June 1727 Academy performance of Bononcini’s Astianatte when the opposing factions broke out in “Hissing on one Side, and Clapping on the other” and gave rise to “Catcalls, and other great indecencies.”

Despite the urban legend that the two sopranos themselves came to blows, no evidence has been found to corroborate that claim. However, the near-riot led to the cancelation of the remainder of the season and precipitated the demise of the Academy, a collapse no doubt furthered by the concurrent success of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera which not coincidentally included a scene parodying Handel’s warring prima donnas.

Most commentators offer that the five operas Handel wrote for The Rival QueensAlessandro, Admeto, Riccardo Primo, Siroe and Tolomeo–are among his weakest. Forced to create two leading female roles of equal prominence no doubt impaired the composer and his librettists. However, all five contain fine music, although only Admeto provides a fully satisfactory music drama. Yet Alessandro became a remarkable popular success and was, after Rinaldo, Handel’s most performed operatic work in his lifetime.

Paolo Lolli’s libretto was an adaptation of La superbia d’Alessandro set by Agostino Steffani in 1690 (excerpts of which appear on Cecilia Bartoli’s most recent CD Mission).

Any resemblance to the real Alexander the Great is purely accidental although both Rossane and Clito are also historical figures. Alexander would have been well known as a great hero to most 18th century audiences, but Handel’s work paints him instead mostly as a lover (and a pretty ineffectual one at that). Although there is a subplot involving an attempted coup, so much attention is paid to the two ladies vying for the Emperor’s affections that one is almost surprised when anyone else gets to sing an aria. In fact, of the score’s 36 arias, accompanied recitatives and duets, a full 30 are sung by the leading trio, with the remaining six shared by the other four characters!

Although an opera seria, Alessandro runs closer to comedy about a love triangle in which each character’s true feelings remain oddly opaque. Although in love with Rossane, Alessandro toys with Lisaura’s affections—partially for political reasons but also because he likes to play love games. He eventually ends up with Rossane, while Lisaura remains alone, refusing the attentions of King Tassile who has been patiently waiting on the sidelines all along.

As far as I know, Alessandro has been done just twice in the US at the Kennedy Center and at Carnegie Hall during the Handel tricentenary in 1985, conducted by the important American Handel pioneer Stephen Simon (who died on 20 January) featuring a hard-working Ashley Putnam and Gianna Rolandi fighting over the musically muddled Alessandro of Janis Taylor. My best recollection of the Carnegie performance is a stylish René Jacobs in one of few US appearances commanding the smaller role of Tassile and easily walking off with the show.

Until now anyone who wanted to listen to Alessandro went to Sigiswald Kuijken’s 1984 Deutsche Harmonia Mundi recording (recently been reissued in a bargain edition by Sony).

Despite its vintage, it remains a fine rendition, including one of Jacobs’s best performances from his first career as a countertenor this time in the title role. Jacobs was always a frustrating singer: his obvious musical intelligence often compromised by an unhealthy helping of swooping and scooping. Unlike his excessively droopy Arsace in Kuijken’s otherwise delicious recording of Partenope, he’s mostly on his best behavior (trills!) as Alessandro.

Isabelle Poulenard and Sophie Boulin, his Lisaura and Rossane, are both best known for their work in French baroque music, yet each shines despite the intense demands of the Cuzzoni-Faustina roles. The others are capable, but the joy throughout is Kuijken’s La Petite Bande, long one of the best period-instrument orchestras.

The of the pair of new Alessandro recordings arrived from Pan Classics, a combination of several live performances from a staging at last year’s Händel-Festspiele Karlsruhe, one of three important Handel festivals in Germany–the others, Halle and Göttingen. Despite a promising cast of experienced Handel singers, it unfortunately proves to be a necessary purchase only for a Handel-completist.

American countertenor Lawrence Zazzo, whose work I have enjoyed for a number of years takes the title role. Since being dropped a while back by René Jacobs as his countertenor-of-choice in favor of Bejun Mehta, Zazzo has mostly been singing lots of performances of Giulio Cesare including last fall’s altogether mediocre production at the English National Opera and the Pelly version with Natalie Dessay as Cleopatra at the Palais Garnier, in which he’s fine.

Alessandro, another Senesino role, finds him in uncharacteristically insecure form. Despite the omission of two of his eight arias, Zazzo is so clearly overtaxed by the demands of his remaining music that he occasionally simplifies the notes just to make it through. I suspect that he might have made a better showing in a studio. Although cutting two of Alessandro’s arias may have made sense in easing Zazzo’s burden in a live performance, dropping the two duets with each of his paramours was really shocking and ruins Handel’s wonderful act three finale.

His two sopranos are also far from ideal. Yetzabel Arias Fernández, a great favorite of harpsichordist-conductor Fabio Bonizzoni who features her on many recordings by his group La Risonanza on Glossa, has never been a favorite of mine. Her typically pale, straight-toned singing fails to bring the mischievous Rossane to life. She negotiates the demanding music competently but without the flair necessary to bring its fireworks to life. A ten minute alternate aria is explicably interpolated for her in the final act where it just holds up the action.

As in her recent recording of Vivaldi’s Teuzzone, Rafaella Milanesi again appears at less than her best. I’ve been a fan of Milanesi since I heard her in a concert with Christophe Rousset and his Les Talens Lyriques in Paris nearly ten years ago, but her strangely charmless Lisaura proves breathy and strained and sadly not up to the fine work she’s done in the past.

As King Tassile, Argentinian countertenor Martin Oro achieves nothing particularly memorable with his plangent pair of arias.

The greatest pleasure flows from the accomplished playing of the Deutsche Händel-Solisten under conductor Michael Form, a name I was not familiar with before but one I would be pleased to encounter again.

Happily the new Decca Alessandro proves altogether splendid, the finest Handel opera recording since Alessandro Severo.

Not surprisingly, both Alessandros feature George Petrou leading his superb Armonia Atenea, a very fine orchestra which seemed to spring from nowhere just a few years ago. An extraordinarily fine series of recordings on MDG announced Petrou as one of best Handel conductors to emerge in years. His vibrant readings avoid the blandness of many recent English performances without toppling over into the excesses of some Continental interpretations.

Alessandro also provides yet another triumph for countertenor Max Emanuel Cencic who has attained a remarkable triple crown after his recordings of Vivaldi’s Il Farnace and Vinci’s Artaserse. Although he’s recorded the title role in Faramondo, Cencic suggests that this is his first major Handel role; odd since I heard him as a rather wonderful Teseo in Paris in 2011, and there’s a fine broadcast of Rinaldo from Lausanne.

And Alessandro is a long role—eight da capo arias as well as accompagnatos, duets and coros. One is now even more eager to hear Cencic try out other Senesino roles as the tessitura suits him perfectly. Often, he sings roles too high for him where the top notes can become pretty screamy, although he makes it work for him as a virago of a Mandane in Vinci’s Artaserse or as a high-strung Nerone in Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea (although the latter proved quite beautiful too).

But Alessandro fits him perfectly and this must be his most successful complete opera CD so far. Unlike Zazzo, he isn’t fazed by the role’s fierce technical demands, and the florid writing is effortlessly handled. He suavely presents a besotted Emperor enthralled (if sometimes baffled) by his complicated amorous entanglements.

Petrou’s two ladies marvelously mirror the contrast of the original cast: Karina Gauvin, the veteran Handel diva whose many recordings have all but crowned her as a queen of this repertoire, sings Lisaura, the veteran Cuzzoni’s part; while the prodigious young Julia Lezhneva bursts onto the scene with her first complete Handel role, Rossane, the first role written for his new prima donna Faustina.

By now Gauvin has nothing to prove; her command of the style is sure. Like Cuzzoni, although a fine singer of florid music, her true forte is music of intense pathos.

Lezhneva has clearly improved since her immature debut Rossini CD, although some of the singing still can be oddly bland. Her extraordinarily fine coloratura can seem almost impudently effortless (one might like to hear her “sweat” it a bit more), but anything remotely high turns small and pinched. However, it would appear that the “competition” from Gauvin and Cencic has challenged her to offer here a much more than promising portrayal. Observing Lezhneva’s progress (she’s just 23!) may prove fascinating.

As Tassile, Xavier Sabata nearly steals the show from his showier colleagues. His two arias, touching (if unsuccessful) pleas for Lisaura’s attention, again prove he’s one of the most interesting countertenors around today. As Leonato, Clito and Cleone, tenor Juan Sancho, bass In-Sung Sim and another fine new Russian countertenor, Vasily Khoroshev. have far less to do but handily contribute to this really fine resurrection of rare gem.

Since his tremendously appealing appearance in Alessandro will likely leave many listeners wanting more, it’s exciting to discover Sabata’s new all-Handel recital Bad Guys just out Aparté. Only the mp3 upload version is currently available in the US, but the CD will be released here shortly.

After an uneven Handel cantata CD, Sabata here proves his mettle with a fascinating program devoted to the the villains of Handel operas whose strikingly varied music is rarely anthologized. Most countertenors (and mezzos, for that matter) are desperate to record “Ombra mai fu” or “Scherza infida,” but the arias from Tamerlano, Teseo, Amadigi, Giulio Cesare, Ariodante, and Ottone are almost impossible to find outside of complete recordings.

The potentially troubling thing about the program is that Sabata actually has a lovely, appealing sound—one that radiates sympathy and pathos—rather than the spiky, snarling rasp common to a few too many countertenors. While this makes him an ideal Ottone in Agrippina, it might suggest he’s an unlikely candidate to incarnate these villains; however, his fierce dramatic commitment and intriguing musical imagination reveal the many devious, occasionally sympathetic facets of his characters.

Surprisingly, the highlights of the CD—arias for Polinesso (Ariodante) and Dardano (Amadigi)—were written for female contraltos, rather than castrati who premiered the other four roles. Dardano’s “Pena tiranna,” one of Handel’s greatest arias, is a particular delight. This CD also heralds the first operatic CD release featuring Il Pomo d’Oro conducted by its director Riccardo Minasi; they are an exciting addition to the ranks of original instrument orchestras, and one looks forward to their upcoming releases particularly Cencic’s latest, Venezia on Virgin Classics.

Although the bass doesn’t get much to do in Alessandro, Handel wrote many magnificent parts for this voice, and two fine new CDs have just been released exploring this repertoire. Christopher Purves, who recently shone as Walt Disney in the world premiere in Madrid of Philip Glass’s The Real American, collaborates with Jonathan Cohen and Arcangelo on Hyperion’s Handel’s finest arias for Base Voice,” a wide-ranging collection of selections from 15 operas, masques and oratorios.

More a baritone than a bass, Purves sings a wide range of roles from Falstaff to Wozzeck, but Handel has long played an important part of his repertoire, and he displays an impressive versatility including commendable agility in a demanding program. The arias arrive in no particular order on the CD, but they do seem to have been arranged from worst to best. The opening Sibilar gli angui d’Aletto from Rinaldo sounds gritty, the coloratura labored, and the aria from Aci, Galatea e Polifemo is less fluent than in a recent live concert with Emanuelle Haïm.

However, things improve dramatically and he shines in flashy pieces from Orlando, Riccardo Primo and Muzio Scevola (a rare work much in need of a new recording). Purves is particularly moving in the touching concluding aria from the cantata Apollo e Dafne, while vigorous excerpts from Theodora and Belshazzar show a long experience with the English oratorio tradition. Cohen and Arcangelo are steadily improving, although I’m not sure their prominence on so many recent recital recordings is really earned yet.

Young Czech baritone Adam Plachetka has been a member of the Vienna Staatsoper for the past few years rising to leading roles, including Harlekin and Publio in the recent new productions of Ariadne auf Naxos and La Clemenza di Tito, as well as Melisso in their awkwardly miscast Alcina.

In addition to his Viennese appearances, Plachetka has been part of a burgeoning Eastern European early-music scene appearing in productions of Acis and Galatea

and Rinaldo.

In order to show off this rising star, Supraphon has just released Oratorio Arias, music from four Handel works in English: Messiah, Judas Maccabaeus, Alexander’s Feast, and Acis and Galatea, although the latter two don’t really qualify as oratorios. Happily only two arias overlap with the Purves CD.

Vibrantly accompanied by the Czech Ensemble Baroque Orchestra and Choir conducted by Roman Válek, Plachetka reveals a virile baritone that attacks his music with aplomb if not always the ultimate in refinement, particularly in florid music which turns effortful and over-aspirated. However, he’s impressive in the nearly half an hour of excerpts from Judas, including several choruses in addition to his arias for Simon. This CD is a promising solo debut recording, but I suspect Plachetka’s future will lie more in music written later than Handel’s.

The Petrou Alessandro and Sabata’s Bad Guys stand out as essential listening for this Handel month—the Saxon master was born 23 February 1685 in Halle, just three weeks before the birth of Johann Sebastian Bach 200 kilometers away in Eisenach. The American Handel Society Festival and Conference takes place in Princeton from 21-24 February, and on its final day New York City’s most prominent celebratory event takes place at Carnegie Hall: The English Concert’s Radamisto with Harry Bicket conducting David Daniels, Luca Pisaroni, Patricia Bardon, Brenda Rae and Joélle Harvey.